hal sperlich

Brothers from Different Mothers

1984 Dodge Caravan

Evolution is a funny thing. One basic set of DNA can mutate and adapt to changing environmental conditions to spawn an almost infinite number of organisms. Such is also the case in automotive landscape where few people would consider that there is much common DNA between a Dodge Grand Caravan and a Ford Mustang and yet there is.

1981 Dodge Aries 4-Door

1981 Dodge Aries that served as the basis for the first Dodge Caravan

1960 Ford Falcon

1960 Ford Falcon

2014 marks 30 years of production for Chrysler’s minivans that debuted as the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager while the Mustang debuted 50 years ago. While the Caravan and pony car seem to lie at opposite ends of the automotive spectrum, each was derived from the affordable, compact family sedans their respective manufacturers had debuted a few years earlier and each was the progenitor of an entirely new market segment that didn’t really exist before. The Mustang was an offshoot of the Ford Falcon while the original Caravan shared its roots with the Dodge Aries K-car.

Strangely enough, the parallels extend further as both vehicles were conceived by many of the same people and for many of the same reasons, in particular Hal Sperlich and Lee Iacocca. In the early 1960s, Iacocca was president and general manager of the Ford division at Ford Motor Company while Sperlich was a product planner. Both were members of the Fairlane Committee which got together define a car that would appeal to the growing ranks of baby boomers that were then reaching driving age. The resulting product was Mustang and it inspired similar vehicles from each of the Detroit manufacturers.

A decade after the Mustang, as those same boomers were starting to get married and have kids, Sperlich and Iacocca began pushing the idea of a smaller car-based van within Ford but for various reasons it never came to fruition. Several years later, Sperlich and Iacocca had both landed at a Chrysler that had barely avoided bankruptcy. As the perennial scrappy, third-place brand in Detroit, Chrysler seemed willing to try different things and as Sperlich and Iacocca looked to expand the lineup beyond the original K-cars, the minivan concept was revived.

Much like Mustang, the minivans were a runaway success and soon inspired copy cats from Detroit and elsewhere. In yet another parallel to the pony car, the minivan market bloomed and then waned as customers eventually moved on to SUVs and crossovers. After peaking at nearly 1.4 million units in 2000, minivan sales are less than 500,000 annually. Similarly, the pony car segment reached its peak in late-1960s and early-1970s before settling down with current sales of about 250,000 examples per year.

Over the decades, the Chrysler minivans and the Ford Mustang have each stayed surprisingly true to their creators original visions over time although both have also grown bigger, heavier and more sophisticated. While Mustang has now reached the 50 year production milestone in continuous production, the Caravan is entering what will likely be its last year on the market despite still being the second-best seller in the segment behind its Chrysler-badged sibling, the Town & Country.

When Chrysler announced its 2014 five-year plan earlier this year, the Caravan missing from the Dodge brand roadmap. Instead, Chrysler has opted to consolidate down to a single minivan nameplate under the Chrysler umbrella once the new generation debuts about a year from now. Similarly, Ford long ago discontinued Mustang offshoots, the Mercury Cougar and Capri.

Although neither the minivan or the pony car are the stars they once were, both still have a spot in the automotive firmament and attract enough customers into their respective showrooms to justify ongoing development. The creators should be proud that they conceived of something so lasting.